Is Fix-It the New Thing?
By Lisa M. Krieger, San Jose Mercury News, February 22, 2013
A movement—heroic and subversive—is emerging in corners of the Bay Area: rescuing household appliances that were designed to die.
Faithful servants, our devices are destined for brief lives.
But a cadre of fix-it fanatics, disgusted with planned obsolescence and our throwaway culture, has embraced “creative caring.” Valuing function and respecting the age of household objects, they strive to save them from death row.
They’re awaiting your stuff at a Repair Cafe in Palo Alto on Sunday, a Fix It Clinic in Albany in March, a Santa Cruz-based gathering in May and across the nation, from Seattle to Brooklyn, N.Y.
Two basic rules apply: An item has to be small enough to carry—no cars, dishwashers or clothes dryers. And what’s too broke to fix can’t be left behind—recycle it.
“It drives me crazy to throw stuff away when I know it doesn’t require much more than love and attention,” said Palo Alto resident Peter Skinner, a tech entrepreneur who founded the nonprofit Repair Cafe.
At the Palo Alto event, experts, such as Stanford University-educated mechanical engineer John Eaton, will diagnose and repair items as varied as video games, toys, jewelry and furniture.
The Fix It Clinic in Albany embraces a do-it-yourself spirit—“guided disassembly,” joked founder Peter Mui, of Berkeley, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained electrical engineer. The 45th clinic since 2009 will open like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting—“Hi, my name is Ted, and this is my toaster oven”—and then make available tools, coaching and moral support.
The gatherings are also social events, with coffee and conversation that’s rare in a big-box store. You can bring an item and then linger. Owners pay for the cost of parts, but there is no repair fee.
Don’t have anything that needs fixing? Stop by and watch.
Distressed by the growing waste of easily repairable goods, Palo Alto’s Skinner found inspiration in the Netherlands’ highly successful Repair Cafe, created in 2010 when a few Amsterdam neighbors began helping out each other. Now the country has 30 groups and a Repair Cafe Foundation that has raised more than $500,000.
An environmentalist, MBA and veteran of several Silicon Valley startups, Skinner said he believes profound change can start “at the grass roots, bubbling up from below.”
Berkeley’s Mui found his inspiration in the joy of complex electronics and the disappointment of poorly made junk. As a child in Brooklyn, he took metal shears to his Lionel Train tracks to design the course to his own specifications.
“Why isn’t there a market for a lifetime toaster?” Mui fumes. “Couldn’t a manufacturer just say: ‘This is the last toaster you will ever need to buy’?
“To squander our dollars buying poorly made crap—that’s not honoring our lives,” he said.
They estimate a success rate of 60 to 70 percent and have fixed Geiger counters, binoculars, sewing machines, rice cookers, electric kettles, radios, a hair straightener, vacuum cleaners and a laptop’s poorly attached graphic chip.
The trend toward miniaturization makes some electronics almost unfixable, the fixers concede. (Those coaxial wires on your broken earbuds? Good luck.)
The universal annoyance? Cellphones. They’re tricky to pull apart and reassemble—and companies are far more interested in selling upgraded contracts than offering repair service.
For the terminally ill product, where a small problem escalates into a wild-goose chase, last rites are offered.
Yet even that decision has value: salvaged parts for a future project.
And it yields a deepened respect for all that makes modern life comfortable.
“Let’s extract that very last value,” Mui said. “Understand why it broke, and learn from that.”